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Ticks on dogs are a common problem, but many pet parents don't realize cats can get ticks, too, and they can be just as dangerous. Ticks are often referred to as insects, but they're actually closer to spiders and mites. Ticks on cats are parasites that feed on their blood, but ticks can feed on any warm-blooded host, including humans and other animals.
Ticks carry disease, and the longer a tick is on your cat, the higher the chances your cat can contract a variety of life-threatening illnesses. Luckily, most cats groom themselves often, so it's rare for cats to have multiple ticks on them.
Unfortunately, many cat owners don't realize that their cats can get ticks. Indoor cats that don't spend any time in the grass can still get ticks because of their ability to travel. Ticks can enter your home by hitching a ride on your clothing or by sneaking in when you leave the door open.
If you find a tick on your cat, you must remove it immediately. While removing a tick isn't for the squeamish, it's an absolute must. Additionally, you should talk to your vet about finding solutions for preventing ticks. Even if your cat never goes outside, they can still get ticks that threaten their health and life.
- What Is a Tick?
- How Do Cats Get Ticks?
- How To Find Ticks on a Cat
- Prevent Your Cat From Getting Ticks in the Future
- When Should You Call a Vet?
What Is a Tick?
Ticks are common parasites that typically live outside. They can be found throughout the United States but typically thrive in warm environments. These pests have eight legs and no antennae, making them a member of the arachnid family, along with spiders, so they're not insects even though we typically refer to them as bugs.
Ticks survive on blood from humans and animals, attaching themselves to the skin so they can suck the blood easily. Additionally, ticks prefer to attach to warm and moist areas of the body. On humans, ticks commonly attach themselves to scalps, armpits, and groins. Ticks are typically carriers of disease and can pass on these diseases to any living creature they bite.
If you notice your cat scratching, never assume they're scratching because of allergies or another skin condition. When a tick attaches to a cat, dog, or any other living creature, they burrow their heads into the skin, which can cause mild skin irritation and itchiness. However, irritated skin isn't the worst part about ticks; they pose a serious risk to animals and humans.
There are two different types of ticks: hard and soft ticks. Hard ticks are the types of ticks you see on dogs and cats. These pests typically feel like a hard lump, and they have a hard area behind their mouth.
What’s the Lifecycle of a Tick?
Adult ticks seek out animal hosts to gorge on blood. A tick's lifecycle looks something like this:
- Egg: Females lay eggs on the ground outside.
- Larva: After the egg hatches, a tiny six-legged larva feeds on a host.
- Nymph: Larva becomes nymphs when they've fed enough on a host and continue to grow.
- Adult: When nymphs grow, they become adult ticks. Adult ticks feed and mate, and the female lays her eggs on the ground.
The total life cycle varies from two months to two years, depending on the species of tick.
How Do Cats Get Ticks?
Cats can get ticks indoors and outside. Ticks typically live in long grass and on trees. They can easily latch onto cat fur if a cat brushes by the grass where they're waiting to find a host. Once a tick gets on your cat, it puts its mouth, sometimes referred to as the head, into your cat's skin to begin feeding on their blood. The tick will stay attached to your cat and grow the more blood it feeds on until it finishes feeding a few days later.
Ticks can also easily travel indoors on their host, through cracks or open doors, or on your clothing. Many indoor cats get ticks without ever stepping outside. Ticks can't jump, but they can easily secure passage by anything that brushes by them in the grass, or they can crawl onto your cat at any point.
Are Ticks Dangerous to Cats?
Ticks are dangerous to cats because they carry diseases. Luckily, while there are hundreds of species of ticks around the world, only a few carry feline diseases.1 The most well-known disease ticks carry and pass on to cats is Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can lead to joint damage and pain, kidney failure, and neurologic dysfunction.1 Luckily, the risk to cats is not as high as it is for dogs. In dogs, Lyme disease can be fatal, but it's rare in cats. Cats are typically resistant to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, and even if they have Lyme disease, they may not show any symptoms. While Lyme disease may not affect cats, it can still be life-threatening to dogs and even humans, so it's always best to keep your cat safe from ticks so they can't infect other household pets.
Even though Lyme disease is typically non-life-threatening for cats, there are many other tick-transmitted illnesses that can be more dangerous to cats. Many of these bacterial infections can be potentially lethal. For example, haemobartonellosis is a bacterial parasite that can cause anemia, pale gums, lethargy, and rapid breathing.
Ticks release toxins into the bloodstream, which can cause several illnesses, and skin wounds caused by ticks can lead to infection. Additionally, severe infestation can be potentially fatal.2
How To Find Ticks on a Cat
If you find a tick on your cat, the best thing you can do is remove it. Cats may not show changes in behavior or start scratching at a tick bite to alert you that they've been bitten. Additionally, if your cat gets a disease from a tick, they may not start showing symptoms right away. Checking your cat for ticks regularly is the best way to figure out whether or not your cat has been bitten. You should check your cat's skin regularly, especially in the spring and fall when ticks are most prevalent. Here are some ways you can check your cat for ticks.
- Pet Your Cat: Many owners accidentally come across ticks when petting a cat. Initially, it may feel like your cat has something stuck to their fur or skin. However, upon closer inspection, you'll see a tiny parasite. Luckily, ticks are pretty easy to spot, but it's more difficult to find them on cats with long or thick fur. You already pet your cat every day, so the next time you're doing it, try feeling for any odd bumps.
- Look in Hidden Areas: There are some spots on your cat you may never pet, including their armpits, between the toes, groin, and inside the ears. Don't rely on petting your cat to check for ticks. Always check their entire body.
- Know What Ticks Look Like: Skin lumps on pets are normal, so feeling a lump on your cat might not be alarming even when it should be. When you notice a bump, check it closely to see if you can identify legs.
How Should You Remove a Tick on Your Cat?
Always remove a tick on your cat as soon as possible. While you might think getting a tick off your cat is easy, it can actually be quite difficult, especially if the tick has burrowed deep into their skin. Make sure not to squeeze the tick too hard or pull it in a way that breaks the head off inside your pet's skin because it can cause infection. Here are a few ways you can remove a tick from your cat.
If you have tweezers, dip them with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them. Then, grab onto the tick with the tweezers as close to the skin as possible and gently pull. Be careful when pulling on the tick with tweezers; you don't want to squeeze it or push any part of the tick into your cat's skin.
Try a Tick-Removal Tool
Ticks are stubborn, and getting them out with tweezers may not be possible, especially if your cat likes to fidget. To use a tick removal tool, you'll gently restrain your cat and hook the tool under the tick, then rotate the tool until the tick comes out.
Once you have the tick removed using either method, you can put it in isopropyl alcohol to kill it before disposing of it to ensure that it's dead and won't reattach itself.
Unfortunately, sometimes you might accidentally get the head of the tick stuck under your cat's fur. Leaving the head under the fur can cause infection. If this happens to you, don't try to poke at your cat's skin to get the rest of the tick out. In most cases, your cat's healing process will push the tick out on its own. Of course, you should also clean the area where the tick was attached to your body because there is now a small wound.
Continue to monitor the site of the tick bite for infection over the next couple of days. If you notice signs of infection, such as swelling, take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.
Prevent Your Cat From Getting Ticks in the Future
The best way to ensure your cat doesn't get a tick bite is to prevent it. There are a variety of tick prevention methods you can use to keep your pet safe, including:
Topical medications, including shampoos and sprays, can be effective for removing fleas and ticks and preventing them in the short term. However, they should not be relied upon for complete prevention, and many cats don't enjoy being bathed often.
Revolution Plus is a topical prevention that can be applied once a month to your cat’s skin. Revolution Plus is a great product that helps protect your cat from fleas, ticks, skin mites, ear mites, heartworms, and some intestinal parasites.
Collars are also effective for repelling ticks. Unfortunately, some tick collars have ingredients that can be poisonous to cats, including amitraz and permethrin. Additionally, using a tick collar might be dangerous to other animals in the household, especially if they try to chew on it.
Tick prevention tablets are available through your vet, and many prescriptions can offer up to three months of protection. Oral tick prevention medications are typically the easiest way to protect your cat from ticks because most cats will easily take their tablets just like they would any other treat.
The tick prevention method you choose for your cat will depend on your cat's tolerance to the different options, including whether or not they easily take pills, will wear a collar, or will let you bathe them regularly.
It's best to use tick prevention for cats year-round, even on indoor cats, so that you can rest assured ticks won't be attracted to them. Additionally, prevention stops ticks from entering your home on your pet's fur if they spend time outside.
When Should You Call a Vet?
If your cat has a tick, try not to panic. Many ticks do not cause fatal diseases in cats, but it is a possibility and not one worth risking. If you're able to remove the tick on your own at home, you can use tweezers or a tick removal tool and keep an eye on the site of the bite for a few days to ensure there is no infection. If you notice any signs of infection, you should take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.
Additionally, you should call a vet if you can't get the tick off of your cat. Many people struggle to remove ticks on their own, so if you're unable to remove the tick, make an appointment with your vet immediately.
Finally, always visit a vet if your cat is showing signs of illness, such as nausea, vomiting, or confusion. Because ticks carry disease, you never know if your cat has contracted something from a bite. Talking to a vet can help you treat any medical conditions to provide your cat with the care they need.
Dutch offers televet services to help pet parents and their beloved animal companions when they need it most. If you believe your pet is sick from a tick bite or they have an infection at the site of the bite, we can help. With a licensed Dutch veterinarian, you'll have access to a professional who can answer your questions any time of day while providing your cat with prescriptions to help manage and treat a variety of health conditions.
“Ticks and Your Cat.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 May 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/ticks-and-your-cat.
Moriello, Karen A. “Ticks of Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/skin-disorders-of-cats/ticks-of-cats.